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George Clarke

When Is the Time to Build
a Labor Party – If Not Now?

(22 June 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. 10 No. 25, 22 June 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“Yes, it is true that labor needs its own party, but it is still too early to form it.”

This argument comes from trade union leaders who are now compelled to recognize that the workers have been driven Into a blind alley by capitalist politics. It is their last stand against the growing demand for the creation of a labor party.

“Practical” as this argument may appear at first glance, one thing it is not: it is not new. Almost as long as there has been a labor movement in the United States, there have been champions of the labor party in the trade unions. And for almost the same length of time bureaucrats have opposed the labor party with the argument: “Now is not the time.”

Prior to the organization of the CIO they said it was premature to form a labor party because the trade unions were too weak. Only the skilled workers enjoyed union protection; in the mass production industries company unions and the open shop prevailed. The main task was the organization of the unorganized. But this task itself was made more difficult because the state and national legislatures controlled by the capitalist parties gave legal protection to company unions, company spies and strikebreakers breaking strikes with injunction laws, state troops and deputized thugs.

Always “Too Soon”

After the great CIO drive which swept steel, auto, rubber, glass, aluminum, packinghouse into the union ranks, it became patently ridiculous to speak of the “weakness” of the labor movement. Now it was too soon to form labor’s own party because a “great friend of labor” had moved into the White House and had brought with him into Congress and the state capitals many other “friends” from the Democratic Party. According to the myth, so carefully built up by union bureaucrats and Stalinist bureaucrats, Roosevelt virtually organized the CIO singlehanded and all of the concessions and pro-labor legislation won in this period were handed to the workers on a silver platter by the man in the White House. It is difficult to argue against a myth. Nevertheless the facts are clear.

Wherever the workers won, the victory was due to their own strength and their own militancy. Wherever they lost, they could thank the “friends ot labor” upon whom they relied. The “Little Steel” strike was broken in 1937 by Democratic governors elected by CIO votes in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. When Roosevelt was asked to speak out against the use of the National Guard, he belted the steelworkers in the face with his infamous declaration: “A plague on both your houses.”

Despite these sharp lessons, Murray, Hillman and the Stalinists continued to hold the halo over Roosevelt’s head. Naturally, a labor party would be premature as long as a saint sat in the President’s chair. The facts, however, are different. Although with diminishing enthusiasm the workers continued to follow Roosevelt until his death, they had meanwhile turned their backs on the Democratic Party. Not all the artful demagogy of Roosevelt could make the party of the Wall Street gang, the big city bosses, and the polltax Congressmen attractive again for the organized workers.

“Non-Partisan League”

To elect Roosevelt, the trade union leaders were compelled to organize the workers into a separate political body: Labor’s Non-Partisan League in 1936 and the Political Action Committee of the CIO thereafter. In form both of these organizations were labor parties: they were relegated bodies representing the various CIO unions and membership organizations consisting of workers and their families. But in aim and program they were not labor parties at all.

Although LNPL and PAC drafted their own programs they had no means of demanding action since the Democratic politicians, guaranteed support in advance, felt free to act as they pleased – rather as Wall Street pleased. The best LNPL and PAC could hope for was a few crumbs. A few crumbs for the millions of votes that decided every major election since 1936! Not only was the time ripe for a labor party but without organizing the workers independently; without bartering the combined millions of union votes, without betraying the deepest aspirations and interests, the Democratic administrations in Washington for the past 10 years would have been impossible.

The crowning argument of those who keep postponing the labor party to some time that never comes is the theory of the “lesser evil.” It is true, the more honest admit, that Roosevelt was becoming less friendly to labor all the time. But what was the alternative? If the trade unions ran their own candidates they would split the Democratic vote and a Republican like Landon, Willkie or Dewey would be elected. And to make the bogeyman even more terrifying they never fail to recall the odious memory of Herbert Hoover.

But one little fact punctures this argument completely: there were less than three million organized workers during Hoover’s administration. He could slug the workers’ movement without fear of counter-action or reprisal. Today any president must count with the largest, the most conscious and the most powerful trade union organization in history. There is no way, short of establishing an outright dictatorship that would permit even the most reactionary President to ignore this formidable, organized power.

What Counts Is Power

Now suppose for a moment that to the organized economic power of the trade unions there is joined the organized political power of the labor party; suppose that the labor party in its first presidential election polls only one-third of the popular vote – 12,000,000; suppose that the labor party wins one-third of the seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives and an equal number in the state legislatures. (This is not at all far-fetched; if anything it is an understatement of the electoral power of the union members, their families, friends and supporters they will receive from all the nation’s poor.) Can anyone conceive of a Republican President and a Republican House acting in the style prescribed by Hoover under such conditions?

Henry Ford was a friend of Hitler and he acted like Hitler to the auto workers until they shut down River Rouge and made him sign a union contract. What counts in politics as it does in union business is NOT promises, gratitude or good will – what counts is power. Weakness permits “progressives” to act like reactionaries. Strength makes reactionaries pause many times before they yield to their natural impulses.

When indeed will the time be ripe for the formation of a labor party? This question the slippery-tongued gentlemen always evade. We need not wait any longer for their evasions and ambiguities, for their procrastination and delays. We have seen how they postponed, blocked and sabotaged the labor party through the depression, then through the days of the great rise of the CIO, then through the war, and now in the midst of the gigantic postwar struggles they are still not ready.

But the enemy is not waiting. Acting through its lackeys in Washington, the fist of Wall Street is crashing down on the working population: the FEPC is slaughtered; the open sky is fast becoming the ceiling on prices; fact-finding boards cut the wage demands of striking workers; plants, mines, railroads, entire industries are seized by the government to force the workers into unequal battle with the state instead of individual employers; now Truman is preparing to go into the strikebreaking business in a big way by using the army, navy and coast guard to smash the projected maritime strike; meanwhile Truman and Congress are vying with each other to see who can place the worst labor-crippling laws into the statute-books.

Shall we wait, politically paralyzed, politically disarmed, politically impotent until organized labor is bound and gagged? Shall we wait until the unions are beaten, defeated and cut to pieces, robbed of their treasuries, persecuted by capitalist courts and capitalist laws, tied hand and foot by arbitration, crushed by armed forces? Shall we wait until Wall Street brings down the iron heel of military dictatorship?

The time for waiting is over. The time for action is now. The Labor Party must be organized immediately. The unions stand at the peak of their strength. They represent a formidable power. The workers have emerged from every strike undefeated – every strike but the railroad strike. And there the setback has tom the blinkers off the eyes of the entire working class population. It is alert, militant and eager to repel the attack of labor’s enemies.

Great victories are possible – on one condition: the knot must be untied that binds the political arm of labor. The independent political party of the working class and the poor farmers – the labor party – must be built now!

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